Un-Stiffing the Mystiques

Written by Douglas Davis on . Posted in Books, Posts.

For a few hours I am
scared, on cue. Just the day before I’d been on the phone with Susan Faludi,
whose latest book sets out to convince me the old ideas of virility and maleness
are in danger. She called it Stiffed, as in failed, not victorious (William
Morrow & Company, 662 pages, $27.50). And certainly not erect.

Yet Faludi is–with
Naomi Wolf and a few other second-generation feminists, now in their late 30s
and 40s–"pro-male." With Betty Friedan and a few men, she once
argued that the "masculine mystique" needs detonation, just like the
"feminine" one. For six years it had been rumored Faludi was interviewing
men all over the nation, determined to explain what the postfeminist world looks
like through men’s eyes–and how we’ve been betrayed.

But Stiffed, for
all its good intentions, is a downer. The Barbell Girl, upon reflection, is
also a downer. Then I pick up The New York Times and find Natalie Angier,
the Supreme Male-Basher of 1999, praising a body manual written for teenage
girls that welcomes sexuality into public discourse (Deal With It!: A Whole
New Approach to Your Body, Brain, and Life as a Gurl
, by Esther Drill, Heather
McDonald & Rebecca Odes; Pocket Books, 309 pages, $15). She is ecstatic
over its frank language. She warns us it’s filled with first-person testimonies
from the authors’ website, much of it celebrating heterosexuality. ("Salome"
writes: I try to look into my boyfriend’s eyes when I’m sucking.
It seems to get him off faster.
) This manual is a signal reversal of the
tide that has swept through our political and media life since Monica, dousing
George W. Bush so totally he decided to come out against masturbation a few
weeks ago, denying his fratboy past as well as contradicting Naomi on Al Gore’s
shoulder, who thinks self-gaming is fine.

So of course I call the
publisher for a review copy of Deal. Gloom lifts, temporarily. It’s
no longer just me vs. the rich women who reduce every talk show debate to the
primitivism of old-style Marxist class warfare or new-style free market panaceas.
The debate seems to be admitting new ideas, differing viewpoints…and one feminist
book about the forgotten male. Women are beginning to hint they aren’t
totally indifferent to us.

Davis: It took you six
years to write this book about men. Why? You must be worn down talking to working-class
males. Are they as tight-lipped as their stereotype?

Faludi: Yes, it did require
months to get the men to open up. On the other hand some of the men, not necessarily
pro-feminist, turned out in the end to be willing and eager to talk. I think
that’s because one of their beefs with feminism is they feel they aren’t
being heard. They have a genuine desire…to get beyond the conventional assumptions
about what is really underlying their discontent.

You sense what I mean.
Faludi wants to straddle all the worlds at once. While implying often in these
pages that women don’t "get it" about men, she’s not going
to bash women. She’s going to argue that "conventional assumptions"
(cf. male media, corporate bosses and politicians), not feminist attack squads,
are ripping the sexes apart. She’ll admit the genders are coiled inside
a system that beats up on both of them, revealing one inch of Marxist stocking.
But she’s going to focus primarily on the victim-guys most likely to hate
feminism, the unemployed Industrial Belt sluggers, ignoring the ones who voted
to give women the right to vote and hoist barbells, the white collars in service
and information. Her book is layered in hundreds of direct-quotation male conversations.
They’re unmistakable proof that Susan really enjoys men, provided they’re
rough and tough, but fragile at the same time, barely able to blurt out grainy
sound bites that badly need the gloss she gives them.

Why has it taken so long
for the idea of a masculine mystique to be recognized and confronted?

First and foremost, our
culture defines manhood as being in control: you are not shaped by social and
cultural forces. You’re a rock of strength. So for men to even begin to
discuss the way in which they’re molded or shaped by the culture–which
is really what added up to the feminist mystique–is to admit they’re
less than men. In that way, women had it easier. They didn’t mind admitting
their fragility.

Let’s begin with the
myth that "men" are furious over "women’s advances,"
as Faludi tells me on the phone. It’s not only that her model is brilliantly
selective: laid-off engineers, steelworkers, shipyard mechanics, high school
dropouts, poor-boy gangs, male porn stars, ex-astronauts, gun nuts, Promise
Keepers, Citadel cadets. Stiffed begins with the author shadowing one
domestic abuse workshop after another. She rigorously ignores the vast numbers
of males who say–in poll after poll–that they are for equal
rights, well-qualified female pols and women CEOs. The last serious poll to
ask the question, "Would you be willing to vote for a woman for president?"
yielded a "yes" vote of over 90 percent, with only a two-point difference
between male and female respondents.

As for the chastened men
who do talk to her about beating up their women and such, yes, they’re
eloquent about sexist sins and more than willing to confess all. She’s
surprised by this, but in truth it’s predictable. By the time Faludi gets
to them, they have expiated their sins in more than one workshop, right on cue.
The Confessed Sinner, among them our President, is a celebrity of our time.

That’s why this male
mystique code, subtly modulated by feminist analysis, is drenched in guilt–as
was the feminine mystique that rose out of the same 1950s. And why the single
achievement of the gender war rhetoric in the past few decades has been negative,
not positive, however much the employment rolls have enlarged to take in hordes
of women. We have mightily–if unintentionally–eroded whatever small
tolerance existed in this repressed society for the pleasures of heterosexuality.
Anyone 15 years old or more has surely noticed the rise since 1990 of legal
and bureaucratic actions against any mainstream sexual expression that doesn’t
follow strict guidelines. The courts are filled with harassment charges, the
schools are chocked with seminars warning each gender against the other (all
the way down to grade schools where little boys are suspended for kissing little
girls who want to be kissed), and our political leaders, most of whom enjoy
rich and varied sex lives, sound like Cotton Mather on the stump (in his scorn
for masturbation, George W. is the spitting image of Pope John Paul).

Faludi ignores this heterophobic
public relations trauma, other than an occasional quotation ("Girls have
the power to have sex with somebody if they want to," says a California
teenage boy, burning with resentment. "They have the power.") She
sees the male crisis as primarily economic–the loss of manly blue-collar
jobs. No other issue, social, psychological or political, means as much to males
now as the drought in manual labor, she says, and regular paychecks and beer

This single-issue mania
is the main reason Stiffed fails to achieve its goal, which is nothing
less than man’s lib. Monomania, a thoroughly American sickness, is also
lurking behind the failure to liberate women. It’s our obsession with One
Truth at a Time.

Why can’t men act?
You ask this question halfway through your book and provide a long, intense
answer. Can you summarize it for me now and add any references to how this text
has been read and reviewed?

Women find it easier to
act because they are able to use new and traditional battle-line strategies
to take action against their situation. They found a clear enemy in the "patriarchy"
and a real frontier in the workplace and education and public institutions.
Whereas for men there is no clear enemy. They can’t rail against a "male-dominated
society." Beyond that they can’t act because in doing so they must
confess they aren’t masters of the universe–that they’re buffeted
by social and cultural forces just as women are. The response to my book from
a lot of defensive media guys has only confirmed that: "I am fine,"
they say. "I am not the victim of anything. I don’t even want to read
this book."

Here and elsewhere I think
Faludi buys into the very mystique she wishes to bankrupt. In search of males
who fit the pattern, she finds them, exalts them, pats them on the head like
a good mom. Of course this is why she continually expresses surprise that tough
guys can talk, as well as chew gum: because two decades of feminist rhetoric
had led her to believe they couldn’t.

The betrayed American male
has no ability, in brief, to sense what the bad guys are doing to him. She expresses
shock in Stiffed that Sylvester Stallone or Michael Bernhardt, the Vietnam
vet who told the truth about the My Lai massacre, contradict the pattern. Stallone’s
discomfort with his Rambo/Rocky image, which brought him at once fame, fortune
and derision, is seen here as a lonely, heroic rejection of his father. Bernhardt’s
decision to tell the Congress and the media about what he saw–even the
moment when the infamous Lieut. Calley, half-clad, held a gun to a naked Vietnamese
woman–is also seen as isolated defiance.

But are they really unique?
Stallone is simply the latest multimillionaire Hollywood star fed up with typecasting,
stretching all the way back to Gary Cooper and Rock Hudson. He admits to Faludi
(at the Four Seasons) that he helped get himself out of the Vietnam draft by
pretending his bad hearing was worse than it is. In all his moves, Rocky/Rambo
reveals himself at one with Hollywood and America: rejecting the male mystique
script whenever it causes pain or loss.

God knows Michael Bernhardt
is worth the time and adulation Faludi heaps on him (in diners and coffee shops
rather than the Four Seasons). But again she is driven to cast him as a loner,
as one of the rare few who saw through the Vietnam War folly. Has she forgotten
how many males refused to fight in Vietnam, deceived the system (cf. Bill Clinton,
Dan Quayle, Rush Limbaugh) or demonstrated against it? Or how their models–from
the Quakers to Gandhi to Martin Luther King–were also males?

It doesn’t take a
professional historian to point out how often feminist writers distort history
in the most blatant terms, ignoring long lines of male pacifists, pro-feminists
and socialist visionaries.

Faludi is obsessed with
the alleged right-wing power to blind males to the evils of Late Capitalism.
Be a good girl, guys, she says, in effect. Admit you’ve been
brainwashed. Reject the patriarchy.
She even finds JFK in obscure speeches
in 1960–as well as his address to the Democratic National Convention–trying
to rouse "young men" to invade "the new frontier," which
he defined like a football game, as "a set of challenges." "The
fight," she concludes, "was the thing, the only thing, if America
was to retain its manhood." But JFK was much more than a simple muscleman,
as he later proved on several levels, including his willingness to admit defeat
in the Bay of Pigs. I agree that Stallone, Bernhardt, and company are admirable
in their ability to "see through" the gorilla ethic. But they’re
hardly alone. They’re not even in the minority.

For sure Faludi is right
when she argues that women were able to organize in the 60s and 70s against
a "clear enemy." But the enemy can be so overstated and oversimplified
that he/she isn’t real. The idea, for example, that the average American
male worships the corporate elite is one example. It’s equivalent to assuming
that the average woman sees herself as Hillary Clinton or Martha Stewart. What
about the tons of poetry, politics, art, popular music and theater that attack
this elite? Why is Warren Beatty (Reds, Bulworth) making a fortune?
What about the endless polling that documents massive distrust of Wall Street
and the government, not to say tv commercials? Why do millions of males either
refuse to vote at all, or pull down the lever for adversarial politicians in
this allegedly domineering, dominating patriarchy?

How have your feminist
colleagues reacted to Stiffed?

Warmly. The book is a feminist
book. It does not take exception with the fundamentalist feminist position.
It uses feminist analysis to try to understand the frustrations of men.

If feminism is so successful,
as you argue (and on one level I agree), why don’t most young women want
to call themselves "feminist"?

For obvious reasons. They
don’t want to be mean and humorless, they don’t want to be vicious,
antagonistic. They want to get a date. They don’t want to seem like harridans
and hags and all the words that have become associated with feminism… Then
you’ve got on the other hand these women in the media, in books, on talk
shows, "the chattering elite"–like Christina Hoff Sommers–opposed
to feminism.

"They want a date"?
Does this mean that sexuality has been victimized in the 90s?

You’re talking about
the private realm of sexuality. I am talking about making a living. And those
are two different realms… What people do in the privacy of their love lives
is highly complex.

But Faludi herself weaves
the "private" realm of sexuality into what she calls the "final"
betrayal of the American male, the coming of "ornamental culture,"
which is a product, she says, of the past two decades. That’s when the
service and information industries pushed hard muscular work offstage. During
this traumatic switch, the corporate media barons began to value masculinity
entirely as display–cf. Stallone–not as function. Image, display and
flourish replaced "real" work. "Femininity fit more easily into
the new ethic"–the ethic of display. Faludi’s favorite guys are
now final losers: "The internal qualities once said to embody manhood–surefootedness,
inner strength, confidence of purpose–are merchandised to enhance their

Faludi assumes that the
American male is only an asset, only a Real Man, when he uses his muscles, not
his brain. Another perversion of history, but more to the point, isn’t
the new economy a betrayal of the traditional American female as well?
Ripped from her home, her kids and her privileged privacy, thrown into the marketplace,
where she must do battle with Gates, Grove and Gore?

Or is it that at this moment
two traditional mystiques, never particularly powerful or confining,
are deconstructing, leaving the old paradigms in ruins?

As much as I welcome Susan
Bordo’s obsession with The Male Body in her book, the plain fact
is she does not understand what an erection is–and shouldn’t pretend
to. No woman does.

That is why Stiffed,
far more than
Backlash, is simply reporting and allowing the men to speak…
There is no one else to explain what it is to be a man but a man. But men don’t
speak. Did you read that great book by Richard Rhodes about his sexual coming
of age? Male reviewer after male reviewer complained…as if he broke
some taboo. I think fear and hatred await any male who breaks the silence.

Part of me agrees. Heterosexual
men are attacked when they write frankly about gender issues–but
it’s hardly just by the "male reviewer." And until we can speak
frankly we can’t change things.

What’s wrong with
the tons of paper wasted on genderism to date is that it’s focused relentlessly
backward, as is the nonsensical "family values" debate. Neither side
keeps its eyes open to what is actually happening right now: the radical decline
in the percentage of American households made up of "married couples with
kids"; the sharp upswing in white illegitimacy, which means prosperous
unmarrieds choosing to spawn kids; the meteoric rise of the information industry
to dominance in our economy, while Faludi’s Rust Belt dwindles; the expansion
of sexual activity both before and around marriage, due primarily to the independence
of women who no longer feel they must marry to survive, meaning that the employment
of sex-as-pleasure has doubled. (As our lives lengthen, as the genetic logistics
of our body extend, it will triple.)

While all this happens,
the software differences between the genders are widening, not collapsing. On
one side, Microsoft. On the other, gurl.com, where Salome’s fellatio quote
cited in Deal With It! came from. Let’s allow a few flowers to bloom
in this artificially constricted debate. Helen Fisher, author of a classic anthropological
study, Anatomy of Love: The Natural History of Monogamy, Adultery, and Divorce,
predicted many of the current behavioral changes almost a decade ago–most
of all the potential coming of abundant existential sensuality.

Fisher’s references
were to the past, to older societies that simply "equalized" male
and female freedom. Faludi’s outlook is retrogressive for an entirely different
reason–back to a sentimentalized work-ethic era no longer decisive in our
lives. Your reference and mine ought to be the future, a radically open, a thoroughly
un-stiffed future.